Sunday, September 25, 2016

Pastimes - Pt. 2

Our "National" One
The regular season of baseball will wrap up in the next week, and there will be plenty of critical moments in games with direct effect on the qualification for postseason play. For this, we can thank the addition of the Wild Card (1995), and particularly the second Wild Card (2012).  All six of the division championships are now basically locked up (the clinching games in a couple should occur early this week).  Without the wild-card spots, the last week of the season would now be just a mop-up exercise; instead, there are 10 teams with a mathematical possibility of making the playoffs in the American League, and eight in the National League, of which five in each league will actually participate in the postseason.  The positive effect on late-season attendance is what you would expect.

The prospect of  a wild-card berth, one game to win or go home, might seem a tease, but it is not so. Because of the tightly contested races for the spots that seem to occur every year, typically at least one wild-card team will come into the playoffs as a red-hot meteor which can blast through a round or more of the longer series.  In fact, in the 21 years since baseball introduced the wild card, six wild-card teams have won the World Series and five more ended as the World Series losers; seven more made it to League Championship Series of one league or the other.  In two years, 2002 and 2014, both teams in the World Series were divisional also-rans.

In the National League, where the postseason matchups are basically set, I would be surprised if one of the wild-card teams made such a run.  Although Miami and Pittsburgh are technically still alive, the two spots will be divided among three teams:  St. Louis, San Francisco, and the New York Mets, The survivor among them will face the best team in the major leagues during the regular season, the Chicago Cubs, who will come in well-rested and with their starting pitching rotation set.  An upset is always possible (the Giants may have some even-year magic going for them), but I would expect the Cubs to pass through and face a tough match-up in the League Championship Series, against either the Washington Nationals or the Los Angeles Dodgers, both formidable squads.

In the American League, everything is up for grabs:  seven teams are in the running for those two wild-card berths, while the three division leaders are virtually tied in their contest for home-field advantage in the playoffs. I would pick the Boston Red Sox, and either AL West winner Texas,or the survivor of the wild-card playoff game, to meet in the League Championship Series.

As for my preseason picks, though I had only two of the six division winners correctly (Cleveland and Chicago), if the Houston Astros, Mets, and Toronto Blue Jays win wild-card spots (not at all unlikely), I will have picked eight of the 10 playoff teams.  Of my picks, only the Arizona Cardinals are definitely out (I believe the Pirates are still mathematically in it).   My World Series pick--Astros over Mets--would get me somewhat astronomical odds at this point, if I were to bet upon them; they are unlikely to make one of those vaunted wild-card runs for the same reason they are on the outside trying to get in:  too many injuries to starting pitchers.

I end this section with a sad note:  Jose Fernandez, the 24-year-old pitcher for the Miami Marlins, died this morning in a boating accident.  Fernandez, a defector from Cuba, was having an outstanding 2016 season, after two years marred by injury (including a "Tommy John" elbow surgery) after winning NL Rookie of the Year honors in 2013.  If he had remained healthy, he was on a trajectory for a career of Sandy Koufax-type proportions, as he had that kind of talent--great ability to get strikeouts and keep runners off base.  I don't know about his personal qualities, though I have heard they were sterling, but his passing is certainly a great loss to major league baseball.

I will get on the sandbox and argue on another occasion for one or more major league teams based in the Caribbean/Central America (and another in Canada, some consideration for East Asia), but I will say that Fernandez is just another example of how the game has transcended mere "national" status, and that with more quality marketing such as the Wild Card expansion (an idea somewhat stolen from the masters of the craft, the National Football League), baseball could become a sport with global fan support comparable to that of soccer (or at least of rugby or cricket!)

Other Sport, Briefly
Speaking of soccer, the global football season started about a month ago.  As the British might say, in the English Premier League "normal service has been resumed" after the shocking upset championship run by Leicester City last season.  My team, Chelsea, has recovered its mojo somewhat after a disastrous season; with its talent, and a new coach, the Blues should aim at least to rejoin Champions League play next season.  The two Manchester teams are likely to finish in the other two top spots--City is packed with talent (headed by ex-Chelsea player Kevin DeBruyne), while United has ex-Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho (our new nemesis), has added depth, and also has an ex-Chelsea star, Jose Mata (who didn't get along with Mourinho at all when they were both with Chelsea).  Arsenal and Liverpool are also typical top teams that seem to have the means to return to contention.

Otherwise, I see Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Bayern Munich as the teams which have the depth of talent to compete for the Champions League title and dominate their national competitions.

American Football:  I don't get too interested in the season until Thanksgiving or so; I have no opinion on the NFL after Peyton Manning (though it seems the Patriots will take the Brady-gate suspension for ball-tampering in January, 2015 in their stride and do just fine).  In college, I am for any team playing against the SEC or Ohio State; in this regard, I will probably be rooting for the U. of Louisville, which pounded pseudo-SEC team Florida State, ranked #2 at the time, scoring 63 points against them.

Basketball:  I am a little disheartened by the fact that the return of Cleveland and Golden State to the NBA finals, which would be for the third straight year, seems assured before the season even starts (barring season-ending injuries to LeBron, Stephen Curry, or new G.S. Warrior Kevin Durant).  There is some hope that the Indiana Pacers may provide some competition in the Eastern Conference, while in the West, with Oklahoma City and San Antonio weakened, one must look to the  L.A. Clippers, or maybe Portland, to be the opponent in the conference finals.  In any case, GSW will be very hard to stop at any level, and the preseason discussion is about how close they will come to their record-breaking regular season performance last year.

As for the college game--which I should say I enjoy greatly--every year is basically a new beginning, with last year's teams erased by the effects of the NBA draft. I don't spend too much time looking at it until MLK Day or so.  As always, I will be rooting for the Kentucky teams, and against those from North Carolina.  It's petty, but one must stay loyal to one's tribe.

I watched the Emmy awards show this week, something I have rarely done in the past.  For me, it is a way to hear about some of the shows that I never see, not being a subscriber to Netflix or any of those other Internet-only sources.  I was a bit appalled to see all the awards given to "The People vs. O.J.", which for me is just a rehash of one of television's greatest historical failures--the elevation of a sordid celebrity crime scene into a major topic in the national agenda.  I was pleased to see the awards for "Veep", a show that entertained, informed, and then knew when to quit.  I was duly impressed by the diversity of award nominees and winners--apparently some changes were made to the voting process which helped make it possible.  I hope the Motion Picture Academy was paying attention.

I was not that impressed with the hosting by Jimmy Kimmel, who seems to have filled the Jay Leno hole for middle-brow inoffensive comedy.  I will admit that he gets good guests on his show, though if I were in NYC and wanted late-night exposure I would go to Stephen Colbert to be on his show,.  

In the new TV season, I have seen a couple of decent new shows.  One is the wacky comedy set in Heaven, "The Good Place", which posits that the omnipotent essences are "only human", in the sense that they make mistakes, too.  No doubt this paradox will be explained at some point.  

"Designated Survivor", a series which premiered last week, has an interesting, though alarming, premise:  a terrorist attack on the Capitol during the State of the Union address (not impossible) eliminates the President and all of the Cabinet except the titular Cabinet member who is held out from the event for just that eventuality.  I am hoping it doesn't just become "24" redux, with the same star (Kiefer Sutherland); I was pleased to see the lovely Natasha McElhone as his wife--I can't say I've seen her in anything since "The Truman Show", but she looks just the same.
Three bones of contention in the first episode:

  1. The Sutherland character met with "the Iran Ambassador" after the event and played some brinkmanship with him, on the suspicion  that his country may have caused the outrage.  It's not impossible that it could happen, but Iran has not had an ambassador to the US in over 35 years. 
  2. The script started with the Sutherland character being designated for immediate firing at the beginning, effective the day after the SOTU, being offered the alternate job of "ambassador to the ICAO" (you can look it up; it's an actual minor international organization).  Sutherland character (Secretary of Housing and Urban Development) was actually considering taking the job. 
  3. The President would not designate someone who was to be fired the next day to potentially take his job in the case of catastrophe.  Nice irony, but not realistic. 
I must mention "The Night Of...", the miniseries on HBO that concluded a couple of weeks ago. Criminal justice drama is a genre that I am deeply bored with, but this one was remarkable for the performances, for the deep understanding of its real-life practice in New York (or other major US cities), some interesting casting choices (not least John Turturro as a lowlife defense lawyer afflicted with psychosomatic eczema), a nice resolution, and an OK opening for a possible sequel should the moneymen greenlight it.

Then there is the first debate tomorrow.  The election of the Presidency is serious business, but the first debate is basically a TV entertainment show.  My plan is to DVR the debate, watching Monday Night Football (Atlanta at New Orleans), or, if that gets too boring, some televised program (I have recorded "Defying the Nazis:  The Sharps' War" from PBS and may watch that).  After the great event is over, I'll fast forward through the debate after the opening statements, watching for those all-important visual cues.  There might be some substance in the subsequent debates, but I don't expect the solid to outweigh the froth coming out of this one.

I do have some recommendations for Hillary Clinton, who I am sure is fully prepared from a content and strategy point of view:

  • Sleep late on Monday.  Make sure you get plenty of sleep. 
  • Don't skimp on the time needed to get a real good makeup job--cover those wrinkles, get the lipstick just right.    
  • Get the best fashion advice available on 7th Avenue to make sure your clothes give the right message--happy, youthful, plenty of energy, maybe a little shiny.You have the privilege and advantage of being able to wear something other than that boring dark blue suit and red tie that male Presidential candidates always have (though I was impressed by the quality of Romney's suits, and I am sure Trump will go off his branded product for some Armani or something). 
  • "There you go again"--this phrase, which would resonate with all those moderate Republican-leaning folks who long for St. Ronnie as their candidate, and are disappointed by This Year's Model--could be the witticism which punctures Trump's pose of reserve and triggers his unbridled anger--something that would be a huge payoff.  It should be reserved for the second or third baldfaced Drumpf lie in a single night, so you might have to wait for the second or third debate.  I am anticipating Trump will keep it more low-key, avoiding overexertion, excessively provocative language, or hyperbole in tomorrow's pilot episode. 

Finally, moving off the small screen to the stage, "Hamilton", the historical rap musical which took Broadway by storm, is coming to our town this week.  I bought some high-priced tickets several months ago (for the third performance here), the proceeds of which will go to a charity, the Foundation Fighting Blindness (HQ a couple hundred yards from my home).   I recognize that the future first American Cabinet Secretary for Culture,* Lin-Manuel Miranda, has withdrawn from the cast, but I'm hoping he will show up to thank the crowd for their contributions. (He is coming to town for the premiere, I believe.)

*I just made that up--France has a Minister for Culture; I don't think it would hurt the US to consider having one.

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