Monday, October 31, 2016

Looking for Relief -- Different Takes

There must be some kind of way outta here

Said the joker to the thief
There's too much confusion
I can't get no relief
--Bob Dylan, "All Along the Watchtower"

First, Bob himself has provided me a spot of relief, with regard to the Nobel Prize for Literature he has recently been announced to have won.  After the announcement, the silence from Dylan was troubling:  was he going to refuse the award?  Was he, a person with at least some nodding acquaintance of literature (I say that, based on some of the literary references in his songs), planning on disparaging the artistic quality of his own life's work?  Well, no--he was either too busy with his current concert tour, or he didn't know what to say about it at first.  In an interview with Rolling Stone, he acknowledged the honor, didn't opine on whether he deserved it, and said he would attend the ceremony if at all possible. 

How Do You Spell Relief?
This phrase has insinuated itself into American dialogue, though it does not have a natural sense outside of its original context.  That context, I must explain for you Gen X and Millennial readers, was the TV ad for Rolaids antacid tablets in the '70's, one that used the "fake testimonial" approach with actors answering the question in a variety of ways describing the product's many benefits, with the ad concluding with the 'correct answer', spelling the product name out. 

It didn't mean much to me, though the phrase embedded itself in my mind through repetition; however, in the past couple of years I have had a bit of an issue with acid reflux, so I have tried the various products.  Rolaids are OK, maybe a little better than their close cousin Tums (which is recommended for the heartburn suffered by pregnant women because of its calcium), but for me, I spell relief "GAVISCOM".  

A final note on this obscure subject:  Has anyone ever noticed, with regard to this slogan, that "to spell" has a meaning almost the same as "to relieve"?  The only difference is that spelling would seem to be always a temporary form of relief.  But then, is any form of relief permanent? 

The Endless Campaign
Certainly that question has arisen, several times, with regard to the presidential campaign.  We have felt relieved after each debate, as Clinton demonstrated her mastery of the issues and her ability to trade verbal punches with the big bully on the other side.  We have felt relieved a couple of other times when her lead in the polls seemed safe, usually because Donald Trump said something or did something so outrageous that even loyal but sane Republicans wavered in their support for him. 

Always, though, like lost lambs, they seem to wander back to their political home base.  So, recognizing this, I have resisted the temptation to revise during those brief "spells" of relative comfort my somewhat cautious prediction, made back in September. I will stand by those predictions (on the Presidential side, a 3.9% margin for Hillary in the popular vote, and a 296-242 Electoral College victory). 

Indeed, the gap has been narrowing in the past few days, even before this latest "bombshell"--the letter from FBI Director James Comey to Congressional committee chairmen that the investigation of Hillary Clinton's emails will take a new turn.  With the discovery of a large cache of unknown emails involving top Clinton aide Huma Abedian on a computer owned by former Congressman Anthony Weiner (Abedin's estranged husband), the FBI has something new to examine for any possible crime related to Clinton's use of a private server, and the volume of emails linked to the Weiner laptop (I have read the number 650,000!) will ensure that resolution will not be swift. 

"Bombshell" is the term I have seen applied to this news item in most of the articles, along with "October surprise" (it just made it in time to fit that cliche).  "Bombshell" is a bit exaggerated when it is used in most cases, but I think it is appropriate here:  to carry the metaphor further, it is a powerful bit of unexploded ordnance that has embedded itself in Clinton's "electoral firewall".  We do not yet know if it will prove to be a dud, or a lethal explosive, one that will break open what has frequently appeared to be an Electoral College fortress ensuring her victory. 

It does seem farfetched that this recycled story would produce such a breakthrough for Trump, though he has already declared it a clincher for his "Crooked Hillary" characterization. First, they will have to "de-dupe" those emails found against all the ones they have already reviewed--that alone could take weeks.  If they were ever to find anything new, there would be issues about chain of evidence and the legality of the warrant; issues have been raised about the propriety of the letter, and so on.  The story likely has already done all that it can do in the run-up to the election, which is to raise another momentum-stopping round of negative press for Hillary, distracting the public from Trump's transgressions, and possibly reducing the damage to the Republican Senate and House campaigns which appeared to be developing. 

I can understand the logic which drove FBI Director Comey to take the action he did.  Though he is a regular Republican, I do not accuse him of partisan motives (others have been quick to do so), but I would say he was playing office politics. The word came out that many in the agency were dissatisfied with the recommendation against referring any possible charges against Clinton in July, so when this new angle opened up, the pressure was heavy to follow it--even if it seemed that the case had already been closed.  His manner of communicating it--in fact, the fact that he did communicate it--left much to be desired, as his letter was so vague that it was unclear whether there had already been any significant discovery. It even was vague about the circumstances of the discovery (though various leaks soon made it clear whose laptop, and the investigation--of Weiner possibly violating the law through sexual texts sent to an underage girl--which led to it).  Despite Comey having a 10-year term which would go to 2023, I think President Clinton would be well justified if she requested his resignation, sometime after inauguration, when the emails have been reviewed and nothing new found.  Meanwhile, Congressional Republicans are already talking "pre-impeachment" hearings! 

At any rate, though this may be a story ultimately about nothing--it will increase Election Day uncertainty, perhaps, but I do not believe it will change many people's minds, not there are that many open to change for any reason--it is certainly the most dramatic event (so far) of Act IV, Scene 4 of our 2016 Political Drama.  Further, going back to the "no relief" theme, we can see that the bickering will continue unabated after the election, with now some new danger of a contested outcome, followed immediately with the beginning of battle cries for the 2018 campaign (in which the Democrats will go back to being the underdogs), and before long, talk will be turning  to the dreaded 2020 campaign.  I can see it clearly (with my "20/20 Vision"--sorry!)  

Surely you don't want to go through this again, do you, Hillary?  You should relieve yourself (and the rest of us) of this misery and announce, after the 2018 midterm elections, that you will choose not to stand for re-election. 

Relief from Tragedy
One topic which Donald Trump briefly brought up in the debates which might have been more convincing was on the assistance the Clinton Foundation has provided to Haiti over the years. ("billions"?)  He mentioned simply that "they don't want your Foundation over there anymore", or words to that effect, but he failed to connect the dots.  Hurricane Matthew showed that, whatever the combined efforts of the many organizations, with the Clinton Foundation prominent among them, over so many years, the place is still, literally, a disaster area, even when it hasn't just been victimized by an earthquake, tidal wave, epidemic, or hurricane.  

Clearly, Trump was not the best messenger to announce the failure of Clinton Foundation philanthropy, what with his miserable tax-dodge, self-serving joke that is the Trump Foundation. I'm guessing that the Haitians that Trump talked to in South Florida are probably more peeved that the flow of graft to them has been interrupted. Still, when it comes to convincing donors for their causes, most of the arguments coming from the relief organizations seem to be much more pleas for sympathy than arguments of proven effectiveness. Not that we shouldn't feel the urge to help our fellows when they suffer, clearly we should, but we can look back at the causes of the past and have our doubts--in spite of Live Aid, they starve in East Africa; Farm Aid recipients are still losing their farms;  Bangladesh is still Bangladesh, and Haiti is, as much as ever, still Haiti.   Relief, too often, is not just temporary, but deceptively unrelieving.  Can we hope for better? 

Baseball:  Overuse of Relief? 
Well, baseball is one area in which relief can be final: the "closer" gets to be that guy who is expected to provide finality to his relief pitching.  Unfortunately, most relief in real life is more like that of the middle reliever, who can expect no more than to pass on to others an acceptable intermediate result, or worse, the mop-up long reliever, sent in to get the team through to the other side of a hopeless scenario, in whatever condition.  

One thing that seems to have changed, perhaps permanently so, is the role of relief pitching vs. starting pitching in the postseason.  Even though team rosters have shifted toward more pitchers and less hitter/fielders, squads cannot rely on their deep bullpens to get them successfully through the 162-game regular season.  They need a strong rotation of four to six healthy starting pitchers to win with enough consistency to make it to the postseason playoffs.  In the playoffs and the World Series games, though, getting a strong starting pitching outing seems barely necessary, and certainly not sufficient.  Managers are now routinely pulling playoff game starters after less than five innings, even when they are effective, and using six and seven pitchers in a nine-inning game. 

The Kansas City Royals showed the way last year, using a thin starting rotation relatively sparingly and relying upon the quality and quantity of their bullpen pitching.  This year, the Cleveland Indians are following in their path.  The Indians' rotation has been decimated by injuries, though in all honesty, their starters have generally been well-prepared and have improved upon their regular-season level of performance.  It has been their relief pitching, though, which has made the difference in their surprising run through the first two rounds of playoffs and to the brink of World Series victory. 

At the same time, though, the Royals and Indians' path is not such an easy one to duplicate.  The Dodgers had a premier closer, Kenley Jansen, who remained basically untouched, though overworked, but gaps appeared elsewhere in the bullpen (and, in one game at least, a starting pitcher was pulled too soon), which allowed the Cubs to pull out late-inning victories and defeat them.  The Cubs have shown similar weakness in the depth of their relief corps, despite having one of the best in the business, Aroldis Chapman, as their closer.  The pattern in their three World Series losses has been falling slightly behind in the battle of the starters, then the deficit opens up as their relievers are outpitched by the Indians'. 

It has long been true that, in the World Series, good pitching generally can shut down even the best hitting teams. While there have been more 1-0 games than usual in the postseason this year, it is not that runs have been hard to find, and the trend seen during the regular season for an increase in home runs seems to have continued.  The game seems to be a matter of pitchers with great ability to throw curves of various kinds for short periods of time and batters who can't hit those pitches.  And woe to the team that can't produce 4-5 innings per game of star quality relief. 

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