Criminally Good

I have to admit I go out to the movies far less than I did pre-COVID, but I still watch my share of them on streaming networks, and nothing I’ve seen all year compares to the tight, harrowing L.A. thriller by John Patton Ford called Emily the Criminal. Currently on Netflix, it’s my favorite film of 2022.

Aubrey Plaza, famous for playing the snarky office girl in Parks and Recreation, a host of quirky independent features and her current role in season two of The White Lotus, has never been better, and carries the film with unflappable ease. Plaza stars as Emily Benetto, a well-intentioned but troubled L.A. woman trying to dig herself out of student debt by landing a decent paying job. and soon “breaks bad” in desperate, inevitable fashion. 

After an interview with a respectable company goes south due to a past DWI charge, Emily’s friend at the high-end food delivery company she works part-time for gives her a useful job lead: a way to make a “quick thousand dollars.” It turns out to be a fraudulent credit card scam operation out in the Valley, which she is reluctant to join but finally agrees to dip her foot into. Emily has a taste for the dangerous, and every deeper dive she takes making “purchases” for her contact Youcef (Theo Rossi) brings her more cash, a fleeting relationship, and life-altering stress that finally comes to a head.

At a mere hour and 36 minutes, Emily the Criminal doesn’t waste one scene or frame of film on talky character development; all we see are Emily’s actions, reactions, and then more actions. We get everything we need to know about her feelings through Plaza’s engaging poker face and fearless expressions. Ford is both writer and director, and his neo-documentary style, masterful efficiency, and cohesiveness is evident from the first scene to the last. Using virtually no music, he creates a palpable tension in scene after scene as we experience what Emily is going through. The movie also has one of the best explorations of the sinister scam world now plaguing us more than ever, (at least the best since the incredible Adam Sandler/Philip Seymour Hoffman telephone battle in the underrated Punch Drunk Love). 

Plaza’s patented dry sarcasm is pleasantly muted in Emily the Criminal, and for once she has an opportunity to just plain act. I watched this movie four days ago, and it may be years before it’s out of my head.

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Thoughts on Baseball Delirium Day

I woke up sometime between 3 and 4 a.m. this morning with baseball clogged in my head. I suppose it could have been due to the four playoff games I overdosed on yesterday, split-screening two of them at once a few times and occasionally hopping to a third game on a third channel, like an archaeologist running between multiple digs at Karnak. And it wasn’t just because the games were thrilling—one of them was a rout and another an unbearable, impotent slog—but it was because the results were purely stupefying.

This is the first season MLB voted to include a dozen teams in the postseason playoff tournament. Like nearly everything they do these days, it was a choice motivated by greed. The league has a vast array of problems, starting with hitters being incapable of making contact (see Houston vs. Seattle, 18 innings), the insertion of fan gambling into the broadcasts and ballparks, horrific ball-and-strike umpiring because the on-screen technology is so advanced it now repeatedly makes them look foolish, and idiotic TV blackout rules that keep baseball fans I know in Iowa from watching games for at least three teams in neighboring states. 

I had to flip away from the Astros-Mariners marathon in Seattle about five times, because watching the home batters crush the hopes of their loyal, glory-starved fans was just too painful. Most of today’s hitters, largely obsessed with launch angles and pimping home runs for the nightly highlight shows, have lost the ability or desire to do anything else but swing for the fences. Over and over again, as the game dragged into endless extra innings, the Mariner batters flailed away at pitch after pitch purposely thrown out of the strike zone by a parade of Astro relievers, when all they had to do was shorten up on the bat and try and go with the pitch for an actual single with the winning run standing out at second or third base. When Houston finally won the game with a solo homer by a rookie in the 18th, I was immersed in another game, and happy that I was.

The bigger takeaway from yesterday was that with two more playoff teams added to each league mix, and the 162-game regular season made more meaningless than ever, MLB has unwittingly created Wild Card Monsters. Three of the four lower-seeded teams were forced to play all three of their wild card games on the road, and what it did was focus the crap out of them, enabling the Phillies, Padres, and Mariners to pull off surprising sweeps of the Cardinals, Mets, and Blue Jays. Now the Phillies and Padres have gone on to unseat the Braves, winners of 101 games, and the Dodgers, winners of 111 in the division series, with the Cleveland Guardians on the verge of another possible upset against the 99-victory Yankees. Shocking turn-of-events do make for great drama, and we’ve had that in spades this weekend.

But I disagree with the great Joe Posnanski, who wrote that in creating chaos, the new playoff system “has worked precisely as it was designed.” Are you serious? The system, with its built-in byes for the four best teams, was designed solely to put the Yankees and Dodgers in the World Series for maximum TV ratings. The last thing FOX wants is a Guardians-Padres Fall Classic where they can’t feature Aaron Judge in every promo ad. Did you notice that when Judge was chasing the American League home run record, the MLB Network showed an entire Yankee game every night for a week and a half? They could have just cut in from a different, more relevant game or their studio programming whenever Judge came up to bat, but nope. THE ENTIRE GAME was aired. Would they have shown entire Twins games for a week and a half if he was playing in Minnesota? Doubtful.

Anyway, the Phillies and Padres’ rabid fan bases became energized by this format like they never have before, the players on those teams were fueled to victory by them, and it’s likely to make the National League Championship Series a loud, memorable event. I can’t wait. Some have said the five-day layoff for the top-seeded teams worked against them in the division series round, but I disagree. It was the new playoff system kick-starting the underdog clubs into high gear. The Dodgers, who won the NL West by 22 games, didn’t have to play one crucial must-win series all season and were certainly not prepared to face the pressure of a delirious road crowd in San Diego the last two days. 

No, MLB did not get what they bargained for at all, but fans of the “smaller market” teams sure as hell have.

Gimme the Funk Any Old Time

I don’t enjoy major league baseball much anymore. The pandemic of strikeouts has infected the game experience on every level. Hitting and fielding fundamentals have largely vanished. TV broadcasts are dreadful, two-or-three person blabfests that barely follow the action on the field. Whether they’re having a good year or not, the Yankees continue to be a shameless obsession of the national networks. The number of teams in the postseason has become absurd and is making the regular season more irrelevant, and the Manfred Man on second base in extra innings is a complete joke. Residents of Iowa, where the Field of Dreams Game has been hyped two years running, are unable to watch six different clubs on TV thanks to idiotic blackout restrictions. Finally, we have MLB’s growing encouragement of gambling on their games, making Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson’s non-inclusion in the Hall of Fame even more absurd.

So what’s left for the old school fan? Vintage radio and TV broadcasts on YouTube do the trick, as so simulation games, and thankfully, a number of great new baseball books every year. Recently I finished two fine, eye-opening biographies, both spotlighting the black baseball experience of the 1970s and 1980s, when contact hitting and speed made games continually thrilling. Cobra, by Dave Parker and Dave Jordan (University of Nebraska Press) and Rickey by Howard Bryant (Mariner Books) document everything you need to know about two of the best ballplayers in the last fifty years—in completely different ways.

Parker’s book is an autobiography, covering his 19-year all-star career with six teams, mostly the Pirates and Reds—and though the tome is longer than it probably needs to be, it’s an R-rated, hilarious, and decidedly human tale of an athlete’s struggles and eventual triumph despite physical ailments, racial tensions, and the cocaine era. Growing up in Cincinnati and headed for a career in pro football, Parker realized he was also very good at baseball, and after being drafted by the Pirates, his big size and swatting skills pushed him up through the organization until his rookie year in 1973. Seven All-Star Game appearances, two batting titles, an MVP award and World Series title with the ’79 Pirates later, Parker left behind a winning legacy, and was remembered as a great teammate who would always give his all even when hurt.

Thanks to co-writer Dave Jordan’s smooth transcribing and editing, Cobra has an entertaining flow that begins with a tense drug-era memory, then flashes back to Parker’s childhood and builds through the years, taking the reader into the tight Pittsburgh clubhouse and his encounters with Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, and Dock Ellis, among many others. The “brotherhood” of the Bucs is certainly the anchor of the tale, in a time when Pittsburgh was the first team to field an all-black and latino lineup, and with its largely white fan base often having a problem filling Three Rivers Stadium. Parker never flinches from telling the reader “how it was”, and we come away with new admiration for a player I always liked but didn’t fully appreciate. Cobra is a rich, revealing ride.

Rickey Henderson, on the other hand, was the greatest leadoff hitter in baseball history, and someone whose uncanny base-stealing (1,406 all-time), and on-base abilities (2,129 unintentional walks and 2,295 runs scored) never fail to amaze me. He played 24 seasons for nine different teams. He led off a game with a home run 81 times (54 is the next highest on the list). What’s remarkable about reading Harold Bryant’s biography is how unappreciative the media and baseball world were of Rickey for most of his career. 

Long before players began pounding their chests after home runs, pointing to the sky and pimping singles, Rickey Henderson was considered a “hot dog” for merely pinching the front of his jersey when trotting around the bases. When he went from Oakland to the Yankees in 1985 and refused to spend time with the ravenous New York press in spring training, they began a five-year campaign to crap on him in the papers, label him “selfish” and lazy” and basically drive him out of town and back to the Athletics, where he instantly helped them win a World Series in 1989. Then he went to Toronto for 1993, winning a World Series there, before moving on for short gigs with seven other teams. By that time a lot more GMs were fond of him, and knew his unique skills could help their clubs.

Bryant’s prose meanders and repeats itself at times, and when he misspells Bobby Murcer’s name as “Mercer” three times in one paragraph, it made me pine for the old days when copy editors were actually employed. Still, his opening chapters documenting the westward movement of black families from the Midwest and South to Oakland—and eventually an all-star crop of great black players like Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Joe Morgan, and Rickey—makes for fascinating social history. Bryant paints a complete picture of the various neighborhoods, playgrounds, and schools that shaped these players, and what the city meant to them. It’s no mystery why Rickey signed to play for Oakland four different times. 

Since then, the NBA has clearly replaced baseball as the major sport of choice for black athletes, and far little attention has been paid to the rich, multi-racial 1970s and ‘80s. After Cobra excelled with his “brothers”, Henderson created his signature “Rickey-style” and didn’t care what anyone thought of it. Above all else, the little man had supreme confidence to match his blistering talent, and in his prime it was impossible to keep him off the bases or from stealing them. The only time Rickey struck out more than 100 times in a season was 1998, with 114 whiffs. Last year? 94 major league players struck out more times than that. I’ll take those past decades of baseball any day of the week, and reading these two books confirmed it even more.

The USFL: Trump’s Dry Run of Destruction

The laundry list of things Donald J. Trump has purposefully or unwittingly attempted to destroy is a long one—democracy, journalism, truth, COVID victims, sexually abused women, immigrants, voters, and election workers for starters—but I wasn’t prepared for reading about one of his early casualties: the United States Football League.

Jeff Pearlman, author of Showtime, The Bad Guys Won, and other entertaining sports books, published Football for a Buck, the Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL four years ago, and besides being a loving testimony to the spring experiment that existed from 1983 to 1985, it is a searing account of how Trump blustered his way in as owner of the New Jersey Generals and in less than three years proceeded to destroy the league. If anything, it was a blueprint, or dry run for what he would soon begin doing to America.

The parallels with what Trump has done since 2016 are just astonishing, and I can’t tell you how many times my mouth dropped open reading this book. Starting a new football league in the spring was a bit of a long shot, but the eclectic group of rich owners were dedicated to trying to make it work, and were opening football markets and finding some early TV coverage and success with the Philadelphia Stars (15-3 in their first year), Michigan Panthers, Chicago Blitz, Denver Gold, Oakland Invaders and Boston Breakers, among others. 

But when Commissioner Chet Simmons and the other owners agreed to let Donald Trump talk his way into the league with his New Jersey Generals and star running back Herschel Walker (hmmm…), red flags soon began sprouting up. As Pearlman writes, “People paying a visit to Trump’s office on the 26th floor of Trump Tower didn’t merely sit in a bland reception area, waiting to meet the big man. No, they first had to endure an eight-minute film that chronicled the greatness of Donald J. Trump, New York icon and all-around amazing guy at absolutely everything.” This included an actual sales pitch for Trump Tower condos.

Unbeknownst to the Commissioner and other owners, Trump had a secret plan: to build up his Generals into a football powerhouse, then goad the USFL to move their games from Spring to Fall and take on the NFL head-on with the goal of nabbing himself an NFL franchise. Pittsburgh Maulers GM George Heddleston recalled an owner’s meeting in New York when this all became obvious:

“And then Donald Trump walks in. And he’s bombastic from the start. He’s loud, he clearly wants to be noticed. Just a jerk, and a jerk on purpose.He sits down, and the meeting starts and he’s reading the New York Times. We’re meeting, voting on things, and he’s reading the newspaper. Finally, we get ready to hold a vote and Donald holds open the New York Times, stands to get attention, talks over whoever’s speaking, and says, ‘Look at this! Look at this! I build a skyscraper and nobody cares! I sign some obscure defensive back and I get three paragraphs in the Times. That’s why I bought the Generals!” As he continued later in a separate meeting, “I don’t know about the rest of you people and I don’t know how much money you guys have, but I have the money to get into the NFL, and that’s where I plan on being.”

“Looking back,”added Heddleston, “I believe he started to single-handedly take the league down that day. Nobody in that room wanted to move the USFL to fall. Nobody. Not one person. But there was something about Donald Trump…”

There sure was, and still is. For the nearly 40 years since then, he’s been able to con people into almost anything, voting for him politically the most unfortunate. As Pearlman writes, “the optimism that carried the league through tough times was slowly being replaced by the whispers of a charlatan, dead set on getting his way.” He used his fake persona “John Barron” to call newspapers and plant stories about the USFL planning to move to fall, even though no one had sanctioned it yet. 

Eventually, though, they caved. “Even though the owners were very powerful businessmen, when Trump came into the room he dominated.” His ultimate Big Plan was to file a huge monopoly lawsuit against the NFL, expecting at the least a huge settlement, or that the USFL would win outright and fold teams into the bigger league and get a slice of the fall money pie, Trump emerging with his own NFL franchise.

When the lawsuit was first announced, Trump stood alongside famous McCarthy hearing  lawyer Roy Cohn, but when Trump learned Roy was dying from AIDS, he dumped him for another nightmare attorney, “Heavy Hitter Harvey” Myerson, who was also in Trump’s pocket. Over the trial’s 42 days in 1986, Myerson never called any of the USFL owners to testify because he was worried the NFL might depose them. “The real reason, as suspected by several owners: Trump craved the spotlight and thought his peers to be obstacles toward dominance.” Myerson was turning it into Trump vs. the NFL.

Trump then lied in his testimony about things NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle had told him, botching up his own strategy, and after the NFL was confirmed of having violated the law, the jury awarded the USFL damages of…wait for it…one dollar. With his ego alone, Trump had systematically killed the league.

It took me a while to understand how this guy ever became President. Now I believe it had a lot to do with him tapping into this country’s racist undercurrent that bubbled to the surface after two Barack Obama victories, but still…weren’t the south and midwest historically wary of loudmouth New York con men? Letting this ignorant egomaniac play owner in your football league is bad enough, but to believe he can run a country? Ten seconds listening to Donald Trump and I wouldn’t hire him to run an Arby’s.

A New Work of Art

Outside of my love for the stories of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, I’ve never been a huge fan of science fiction. Alien and Blade Runner, coincidentally envisioned by the same director, are probably the only sci-fi movies I still watch repeatedly.

Which may be why the utter genius of Apple TV’s Severance took me by surprise. No need to mince words here: It’s the best cable drama I’ve seen since Breaking Bad, and nothing else is even close.

I had the misfortune of losing my last two graphic design jobs when two separate creepy New York hedge fund investors bought the publishing companies where I worked and promptly began disemboweling them, so Severance’s acute, otherworldly depiction of dehumanizing corporate culture struck a big nerve. The story is about a mysterious company in the hills of Pennsylvania called Lumon that only hires new employees if they agree to be “severed” by a chip implant in their head, separating them into two selves. An “innie” works an eight-hour day “refining” cryptic data numbers, while the “outie” still lives a normal life outside of work with no knowledge or memory of anything they do at the office. Adam Scott plays Mark S., the perfect officious everyman who severed himself for Lumon after his wife died in an accident, and he’s joined in his four-way cubicle cluster in the center of a massive empty room by John Torturro (effete company man Irving), short, overweight and ornery Dylan (Zach Cherry), and skeptical newcomer Helly, played by the wonderful and arresting Britt Lower. With a coolly tyrannical Harmony Cobel (Patricia Arquette) calling the shots and a robot-like Mr. Milchik (Trammell Tillman) as her HR enforcer and dispenser of idiotic company perks (coffee cozies, waffle parties, etc.), it’s only a matter of time before the “Lumonaries” start questioning not only who they really are, but what the hell the company does.

Executive producer Ben Stiller also directed six of the episodes, and his crack visual team that includes cinematographer Jessica Lee Gagné, Production Designer Jeremy Hindle and Art Director Angelica Borrero create a workplace that is familiar, darkly funny, and terrifying. Lumon’s hallways are white, sterile, and nightmarishly endless, making the viewer feel as lost and trapped as the main characters are. Severance’s perfect narrative is also more suspenseful and thought-provoking with every episode. By the time the incredible ninth chapter and season finale ended, I didn’t just want to see Season Two immediately, but was ready to watch Season One all over again. It’s that good.

I haven’t even mentioned the unforgettable supporting role for Christopher Walken, playing Lumon’s aging, gay art collector, or Theodore Shapiro’s melancholy piano theme woven throughout the show and placed over the main credits—which happen to be the best of their kind since Don Draper fell through the air in Mad Men and landed on a couch with a cigarette.

It’s extremely rare for any film or TV series to be as expertly assembled as Severance, and when one comes along, it’s an inspiration to us all.

The Horror, The Horror (2.0)

Those who know me are probably aware of my passions for music, literature, film, nature, and baseball (in no particular order), but my love for classic horror has likely outlasted all of those.

As I briefly mention in a recently-revised introduction to RED JACARANDAS, my upcoming collection of original supernatural horror and suspense, it all began at the Bing Theater in Springfield, MA. In the 1960s, horror, fantasy, and science fiction B-movies were made strictly for kids and by the bushel, meaning a double feature for 75 cents every Saturday afternoon at the Bing. My best friend David Ihilchik (“Hooch” to us) and a gaggle of other pals were dropped off at the theater by someone’s mother, where our packed audience of pre-teens dared each other to keep both eyes open during scary scenes. The day Boris Karloff appeared in a trailer for Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath and used a shock cut to this—

every one of us in the theater dropped to the cold, gum-littered floor like we were hit with cattle prods, before we quickly got back in our seats to make plans for going to that film. As much as cheap horror affected my sleep, I always returned for more because I knew it was a safe experience in terror, much like roller coaster rides would be in later years.

I watched every scary movie they would show on late night local TV, including Hitchcock classics, or Diabolique, or Fiend Without a Face, or The Man With the X-Ray Eyes. A signature feature of all of these films, including the Roger Corman ouvre at the Bing, was that they were scary in concept and effects, but never resorted to gratuitous violence. My still-favorite ghost movie of all time, Robert Wise’s 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, frightens the bejeezus out of you without really showing one frightening thing.

When John Carpenter’s Halloween was released in 1978 and became a huge hit, that all changed, and slasher movies took over the genre. I became bored with them pretty quick; watching naive, impressionable teenagers die bloody deaths was not my thing. The outbreak of body-maiming movies like the Saw franchise were even worse. Thankfully, 1999 brought us The Blair Witch Project, the ingenious, non-violent indie film that launched the “found footage” horror genre, which is playing itself out now but still produces occasional gems like REC, Cloverfield, and Host

Thankfully, non-violent horror is still being made, and recent postings of my eight favorite scary movies of the last 21 years now has a champion: THE DESCENT. Neil Marshall’s 2005 film has also been called “Chicks in a Cave” in some circles, and it perfectly sums up the premise. Recovering from a traumatic car accident that took the life of her husband and daughter, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) joins her adventurous girlfriends on a spelunking expedition into Appalachian caves.

For anyone who was afraid to swim in the ocean (or a lake) after seeing Jaws for the first time, The Descent taps into an entirely different phobia—fear of tight spaces. Indeed, one of the scariest moments ever on film is a scene where Sarah crawls alone through a very tight tunnel a mile below the earth’s surface and suddenly has a full-blown panic attack. And this is before the group encounters a race of hideous cave-dwelling creatures that are never explained and begin picking them off. There have definitely been more thoughtful, textured horror films this century, but for sheer “safe” terror, nothing for me has topped The Descent.

Here are the recappings of the other seven films from my list…

2. MIDSOMMAR (2019)

3. THE WOMAN IN BLACK (2012)

4. THE RING (2002)

5. TRAIN TO BUSAN (2016)

6. THE BABADOOK (2014)

7. A QUIET PLACE (2018)

8. THE OTHERS (2001)*

*While I admired The Witch, The Conjuring, Get Out, Drag Me to Hell, and 28 Days Later, they didn’t quite make my Scary Eight.

Which brings me finally to the aforementioned Red Jacarandas, my attempt at capturing the fun terror of the Bing Theater experience—in book form and transported to modern Los Angeles. The book will be released Tuesday January 11th (Amazon page), and if you get the e-book version, be sure to view the two screenplays in white on black type for maximum spooky effect. You can also find links to my three video “pre-readings” on the Grassy Gutter Press page, which you can follow for news of any upcoming Red Jacaranda items or events. Scream on!

The Most Important Book You Can Read

Type Wilmington, NC into your Google Images search window and you’ll be delighted by gorgeous color views of the city’s quaint, active waterfront and gorgeously restored 19th century homes. Hell, it sure looks like a fine vacation destination. You would never know that one of America’s most sickening racist catastrophes occurred there 123 years ago.

Thankfully, David Zucchino’s unforgettable book Wilmington’s Lie has burned the long buried and re-written incident into our minds forever. Fresh off its Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction a few weeks ago (the second by the author), the book is a masterpiece of reporting, and a searing document of a white supremacist coup that overturned perhaps the most successfully integrated Southern city following reconstruction. 

With blacks elected to numerous city positions, racist white North Carolina Democrats (the parties were flipped back then), reacted with seething rage and planned an overthrow for years, cobbling murderous militia groups, soldiers, the Ku Klux Klan, and ex-Confederates into “Red Shirts” vigilantes, and using a host of racist newspapers to condemn the “Negro rule” and “black beast rapists” who were allegedly terrorizing Southern white women and “planning a revolt” that didn’t even exist. Memories of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in the 1830s still terrified many in the white community, and come hell or high water, Wilmington was going to pay the price.

Wilmington newspaper cartoon, late 1890s

Zucchino’s thorough collection of newspaper quotes, political cartoons and inflammatory speeches make it crystal clear that the coup was in the planning stages for a long time, and that the attacks on black leaders and citizens of November 10, 1898 were so murderous and traumatizing, with thousands of black families forced to flee into the nearby woods, that it’s no wonder that the hideous truth was buried for nearly a century. Attempts by many blacks who escaped or were banished from the area to bring the matter to President McKinley were met with silence, McKinley being preoccupied with the Spanish-American War at the time.  

The most chilling aspect of Wilmington’s Lie, though, are the direct parallels between what the white supremacists of 1898 accomplished and what the Republican party of 2021 is trying to do now in numerous states—keep the black race from voting. By unleashing their campaign of terror, beating and whipping and often killing blacks who attempted to vote, and by stuffing ballot boxes with fake ballots for white politicians, black voting was all but eviscerated from the region, Jim Crow laws were soon put in place, and little changed until voting rights were secured in 1964.

Along with the prominent blacks, the white politicians, or “Fusionists” who helped them get into government were also banished from the city. Alexander Manly, a mulatto editor of the Record, the lone black newspaper in Wilmington which had its building torched, was forced to flee the state after publishing a rebuttal editorial to Rebecca Felton, who sent a letter to the Atlanta Constitution that riled up the white masses with lines like this:

“The black fiend who lays unholy and wistful hands on a white woman in the state of Georgia shall surely die!”

Manly’s “crime” was to suggest that some black-white relations may have been actually consensual.

I won’t even get into the sickening speeches of Colonel Alfred Waddell, the chief orator of the white supremacists, or of editor Josephus Daniels of the racist News and Observer, and many others, but they are well worth reading if only to see the length that these lying monsters went to strip the blacks of their dignity and citizenship. Critical Race Theory is becoming one of our new battlegrounds, but let’s start with the obvious: Wilmington’s Lie should be required reading in every high school in America beginning today.

The End of Baseball TV as We Know it

Last Sunday I put on the MLB Network with the intention of watching some of a Yankees-Indians game. Little did I know that the game would be made impossible to watch.

On something they were calling their “Showcase Clubhouse Edition”, the actual game took up the top two-thirds of the screen, while pinned across the bottom were four talking baseball heads (C. C. Sabathia and John Smoltz among them) who held an incessant, distracting talk show about player’s advanced metrics, launch angles, and exit velocities. Basically, anything but the play-by-play of the game they were allegedly broadcasting. After enduring the babble-fest for all of three minutes, I turned it off and found a game on the radio instead.

Baseball TV broadcasting, at least the kind we’ve long been accustomed to, has been an endangered species for a while now, and to me, this “Clubhouse Edition” is the culmination of its decline. I am not someone who rails against advanced stats, having adopted OPS as the go-to measure of a hitter’s productivity, and think they add more depth to the sport’s analysis, but who ever decided that viewers at home would rather listen to announcers hold a calculus seminar than give us the dramatic narrative unfolding in a game? The ESPN Sunday Night telecasts, with three people yakking endlessly, has taken this route for years, and now more and more local broadcasts are employing young, insufferable chatterboxes to fill the booth with extraneous noise.

Take Angels games. Noted ESPN blab-head Matt Vagersian now leads what used to be a relaxing two-person TV booth, and has instantly made it another must-miss talk show. I get that MLB is trying to reach a younger audience by embracing new stats, but in doing so they are destroying the special place good play-by-play announcers once had in our hearts. Remember that Vin Scully guy? Not only did he work the booth all by himself, but he could tell a seven-minute baseball tale in the middle of an inning without missing one second of the drama on the field. You could be doing the laundry down the hall and know everything that was happening in the Dodger game. 

YouTube Blabbermouths

YouTube has also been airing a live “Game of the Week” for the last few seasons, and their “broadcasts” fall right into line with the annoying talk-show garbage the MLB Network is slinging. A recent unwatchable Twins-Indians contest (pictured above) had its three talking heads stacked on the right side of the screen instead of underneath. Like that mattered.

Thankfully, baseball games are still great on the radio, and for a yearly pittance, the MLB At Bat app can put them on your phone or computer. At least radio broadcasters are forced to describe what’s going on and you can enjoy visualizing it while laying in a backyard hammock.

An encouraging thing that also happened last Sunday, though, is that I accidentally came across a fabulous YouTube channel called In Play: Runs, which is basically a gaggle of young Brit baseball fans doing “chat room” coverage of live Sunday MLB games from across the pond for over four hours! (Check out a few minutes of it here.) None of these people have been schooled in advanced metrics, and simply report and emotionally react to what their favorite teams are doing on the field. From watching a mere half hour of this weekly event, their enthusiasm for the game, knowledge of the players, and immersion in the actual drama is so evident, that I get more pure enjoyment out of it than five seconds of what is now passing for TV game coverage over here. All of the In Play: Runs “chatters” have Twitter accounts you can follow, but to hell with that. I want to meet these blokes!

RED SOX LOVE, 1963-2020

I was going to write this article a year ago, but with the onset of the pandemic any whining about baseball seemed both irrelevant and distasteful. Thankfully (or not), circumstances have kept my inspiration simmering on the stove ever since. I paid no attention to the shortened, fan-less 2020 regular season, and only checked in during the postseason to hear that bat crack sound again. 

And every time I saw Mookie Betts in a Dodger uniform, the bitterness would lodge in my throat.

For 57 years I was in a serious relationship with a baseball team, one that began eight years before I reached puberty. Actually, I was first courted by Fenway Park on May 30, 1963, the second me, my older brother and dad came up the dank, smelly tunnel from under the stands and received the holy glimpse of outfield green that seemed otherworldly in the congested, factory-like structure that until that moment looked and felt nothing like a ballpark. The Yankees of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris beat the Red Sox of Chuck Schilling and Bill Monboquette in extra innings, but I didn’t care. Yankee-hatred hadn’t become part of my DNA quite yet, and the absurdly close proximity of the field to our box seats made it impossible to not be engaged in the action. (For my more detailed account of the events of that day, here’s a link.) 

The Red Sox of the early 1960s were wretched, and finished miles below the Yankees or Twins or Orioles every year. But after 5/30/63 I began following their games on TV and radio, with Curt Gowdy and Ken Coleman as my guides, collecting Boston baseball cards, and living for the one Fenway game our dad would take us to every summer. 

In 1967, my favorite player ever Carl Yastrzemski made their Impossible Dream pennant a reality with his Triple Crown Season, and I happily became part of the reborn New England addiction. There were years of heartbreak way before the Bucky Dent and Bill Buckner tragedies (losing to the Tigers by a half game in strike-shortened 1972, blowing a big September lead to Baltimore in 1974, Bill Lee throwing his balloon pitch to Tony Perez in Game Seven of the 1975 Series), but there was also a lot of heroism along the way. When Theo Epstein, Terry Francona, and Big Papi Ortiz pulled off the greatest comeback in the game’s history, down 0-3 to the Yanks in the 2004 ALCS, and subsequently swept St. Louis in the World Series, decades of “curses”, mainly due to the 1920 Babe Ruth sale and their front office history of ignoring black players, were swept away.

After never believing Boston would win again in my lifetime, they instead went and took three more titles, culminating in their five-game thumping of the 2018 Dodgers. In my heart and mind, they could do no wrong, and even a hideous year, like their 2012 last-place disaster under Bobby Valentine, earned them a mulligan.

That caring and loyalty is now over. Trading Ruth away a hundred years ago was a grand mistake that countless books have been written about; you’d think Red Sox management would have learned their lesson. You do NOT let a player like the Bambino get away from you, and you do NOT let the next Willie Mays get away from you in the person of Mookie Betts. The Sox had a chance to sign Mays in the ’50s when he was playing in the minor league South, purposely overlooked him due to his color, and now here was a guy as talented and effervescent as Willie, who could do anything on a ball field, you have the highest ticket prices in the game, he helped you win the World Series a year earlier, and you’re not going to pay the man what he wants?

I knew the 2020 Red Sox were a last-place team the moment the Betts deal with the Dodgers was announced, but even worse, they were ripping away the one player the entire fan base loved. (Feast on this Mookie 13-pitch at bat from 2018.) I realize that big name player movement happens more often in these days of free agency, but it seemed like management didn’t once think or care about what the consequences of this deal would be. Now they’ve given up on two more talented young players in Andrew Benitendi and Jackie Bradley Jr., which to me is just more wound-salting. 

So it’s been a nice 57 years, folks. I live in L.A. and will happily root for the rebuilding Padres. The Dodgers, despite last year’s title, are still a stretch for me, especially after their hideous TV deal that deprived two-thirds of Los Angeles the last five years of Vin Scully’s broadcasting career. But I’ve since dumped my cable baseball package, which I only kept to be able to watch Red Sox games, will continue to never check the Boston scores, and will comfort myself on occasion by re-watching the final game of the 2004 ALCS on a cold winter night, like a widower leafing through an old photo album of his wife.

A Seamless Wonder and a Pretentious Quagmire

Two well-intentioned cable series surfaced in the past month, and they offer a stark lesson in the difference between good and bad filmmaking. 

First, I am happy to report that The Queen’s Gambit, Scott Frank’s adaptation of a Walter Tevis novel from 1983 I was unfamiliar with, is probably the best original production I have ever seen from Netflix, a seven-episode limited series that does not have one moment without brilliant acting, writing, direction, set design, music, and photography. Its story is so simple and seamless, it allows for its main character, fictitious chess prodigy Elizabeth Harmon, to move through her remarkable young life with perfectly displayed loneliness, grief, and joy, in a performance by 24-year-old actress Anya Taylor-Joy that will likely be remembered at the next Emmy soiree. 

I’ve played quite a bit of chess in my time, but understanding the game’s strategy is not essential to loving this series. The memorable chess players Beth meets in her growing career are smart and caring of each other, and discuss their moves in an entertaining way that never talks over the audience or feels detached from the scene. In the same vein, the numerous chess matches are filmmaking marvels, concisely directed for the most dramatic impact and staged in rooms that move from high school gyms to four-star-hotel lobbies to a grand palace in Moscow. The impeccable production design by Uli Hanisch and Steven Meizier cinematography paint every set and carries us along in a fluid stream of visual engagement, while giving us ample opportunity to identify with Beth and feel her emotions. 

I can’t recommend The Queen’s Gambit enough, and my only issue is why it took so long for this novel to find a home on screen. Tevis, who also wrote the Fast Eddie Felson books that became Paul Newman’s role in The Hustler and The Color of Money, died a year after Gambit was published. Heath Ledger reportedly was going to use it as his directorial debut, but after Ledger passed, the project languished for years. Like Beth Harmon’s chess-playing abilities, the series is an absolute gift, and one I can certainly imagine re-watching sometime.

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On the other hand, a series I have no intention of re-watching or even finishing is the fourth go-round of Fargo, Noah Hawley’s Coen Brothers-inspired creation that produced a fabulous first and second season and a third one that wasn’t as unforgettable but was still entertaining enough to enjoy. After a long hiatus, showrunner Noah Hawley apparently decided he needed to write some kind of political metaphor for the turbulent, racist times we currently find ourselves in. The result is an overproduced, over-directed mess of a plot with far too many characters and virtually none we find ourselves engaged with. 

What made the first two Fargo seasons so great was the smaller scale, and the handful of quirky upper midwesterners we liked spending time with—even Marvin Freeman’s doomed anti-hero Lester Nygaard and Billy Bob Thornton’s ruthless killer Lorne Malvo from the opening year. Season Four has abandoned all of that Coen-ish charm and settled on a cold, stylized treatment closer to a wannabe Tarantino epic. Two warring crime syndicates in 1950 Kansas City, one African-American and the other Italian, form an uneasy truce, but the considerable murderous mayhem that follows is dragged out like pretentious, tooth-cracking taffy, and despite Hawley’s artistic skills at re-creating the time and place, I find many of the scenes unnecessarily obtuse, the motivations cloudy, and there isn’t one character, aside from a 16-year-old black daughter of a funeral home family who seems to be narrating the story in the opening episode but is then dropped, who I care even a smidgen about.

Obviously, The Queen’s Gambit and Fargo Season 4 are completely different in terms of genre and mood, but their use of visuals and style to enhance their stories are like a symphony compared to a garage band. One Fargo scene from Episode Two, in which a Sicilian brute visiting from the old country recruits two henchman at a bar to perform a murder for him, seems to take five exasperating minutes to play out. The Queen’s Gambit would have finished the same scene in thirty delicious seconds.