Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Nats' Arrogance is Deliberate, and It's Rubbed off on Bryce Harper and Jonathan Papelbon

Mark Zuckerman knows the Washington Nationals better than anybody. He covered the team from its very first game in DC for the Washington Times, and, after being laid off when the Times eliminated its sports section, kept doing so on his own blog, Nats Insider. Today he's the team's Comcast SportsNet beat writer. So you have to take it seriously when this guy says that the Nats have an organization-wide, top-to-bottom problem with arrogance:
"This organization, from top to bottom, too often acts like it has accomplished far more than it really has. The Nationals fly the largest division championship banner in baseball, high above the scoreboard in right-center field. (The 2012 NL East champions banner still resided up there throughout the 2014 season, long after they had ceded the title to the Braves.) They boast no fewer than three highly visible reminders to the world that they’ll be hosting the 2018 All-Star Game, an event that won’t take place for another 34 months. They spent the entire first half of this season playing intentionally annoying slow-jams over the PA system when the opposing team took batting practice, for no reason other than to thumb their noses at the rest of the league. They continue to show replay after replay after replay of Jayson Werth’s walk-off homer in Game 4 of the 2012 NLDS — an admittedly wonderful baseball moment — while completely ignoring what happened only 24 hours later to render that moment a mere footnote."
I think this is pretty much right. I've noted my own problems with the way the Nats conduct business, and it fits with Zuckerman's depiction of a team "out of touch with reality." But in my consideration of the Nats' actions, I came to a conclusion that Zuckerman doesn't: the Nats know full well what they're doing. The arrogance that Zuckerman describes is 100% intentional. More than that, it's their most lucrative business strategy.

The Nats face a unique challenge in being the worst-established team in baseball: they're about to complete only their 11th season of existence. The sport of baseball is built so strongly on tradition, yet the Nats have little of it—so they try to manufacture it in order to strengthen DC's attachment to the team and, ultimately, sell tickets. They trump up big franchise moments like Werth's home run because it's all they have to remind people of—yet they are forced to remind people of something. (They even meddle with the songs Nats Park sings during the seventh-inning stretch and after wins in their frantic quest to hit on something lasting.) The financial success of the Nationals—baseball is first and foremost a business, remember—requires that the club "acts like it has accomplished far more than it really has."

But, as Zuckerman notes, it's a damn shame that their desperate but possibly necessary business strategy is rubbing off on their employees. Bryce Harper has long been faulted for comporting himself as if he had already conquered the world (the "best prospect ever" epithet, his Sports Illustrated cover shoot), despite his rookie status. (This may have been true his first or second year, but he has now firmly accomplished enough, and been around long enough, to outgrow this narrative, in my opinion. Although one of his walk-up songs remains Frank Sinatra's "The Best Is Yet to Come"...) And Jonathan Papelbon, despite his declining fastball velocity, insisted that his past accomplishments entitled him to the closer's role (and the $13 million 2016 salary it guaranteed him) before he would agree to waive his no-trade clause so that the Philadelphia Phillies could trade him at the deadline (despite being vocal about wanting to get out of Philly). This led to the conditions that fostered Harper and Papelbon's now-infamous dugout brawl on Sunday. Not for the first time, a company's bottom-line-first attitude backfired on its employees.

However, it's important to draw the line at what the Nats' arrogance does and does not mean. It does lead to frightening and embarrassing incidents like Papelbon's assault of Harper. It does mean that they are often condescending to the fans and their paying customers. It does mean that they don't appropriately value their employees and a positive work environment (as Zuckerman notes, how terrible must Tanner Roark, coming off a 2.85 ERA, have felt when they signed Max Scherzer? or Drew Storen, who had 29 saves when they imported Papelbon?). But it doesn't—at least by itself—explain why their on-field performance was so lacking in 2015. Sure, Roark and Storen both took huge steps backward after they were displaced, and the psychology of those snubs can't be ignored. But plenty of teams have won big even with bad chemistry. "Bad chemistry" is too often an easy excuse for poor performance that can be identified and quantified upon more rigorous examination. Rob Arthur of FiveThirtyEight demonstrated that this week, when he showed how easy it was to identify the Nationals offense as the reason they didn't live up to preseason expectations. That, of course, was due to the club's rash of injuries, not an intangible attitude.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Lance Berkman, Here's What You Don't Understand

On November 3, Houston will vote on a local referendum known as the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance—an anti-discrimination law protecting classes such as sex, race, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, disability, pregnancy, marital status, and sexual orientation. When it was introduced and eventually passed by the city council in 2014, it seemed like a pretty sensible way to enforce the protection of every Houstonian, regardless of their identity, per that whole "all men are created equal" thing and the whole "14th Amendment to the Constitution" thing. But the provisions of the law protecting LGBT (and especially T) people raised the ire of Houston's conservative community, the law went to court, and in July the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court suspended the law and ordered it to be put to a public vote.

You probably heard about the ordinance for the first time last week, when former Houston Astros great Lance Berkman recorded a 60-second radio ad urging people to vote against the ordinance. The ad received surprising but understandable levels of condemnation on Twitter and from the sports-journalism world for not only its message, but its specific language. Here's what Berkman says:
"Vote no on Proposition 1. No men in women's bathrooms. No boys in girls' showers or locker rooms. I'm Lance Berkman. I played professional baseball for 15 years, but my family is more important. My wife and I have four daughters. Proposition 1, the 'bathroom ordinance,' would allow troubled men to enter women's public bathrooms, showers, and locker rooms. This would violate their privacy and put them in harm's way. That's just wrong. We must prevent this potential danger by closing women's restrooms to men rather than waiting for a crime to happen. Under Proposition 1, if restaurants, businesses, and sports facilities don't allow a man into a woman's restroom, they would be subject to penalties and fines. This proposed ordinance says that it will stop discrimination, but in reality, it discriminates against people who believe, like me, that members of the opposite sex should not be forced to share restrooms or locker rooms. Join me to stop the violation of women's privacy and discrimination against women. Vote no on Proposition 1: no men in women's bathrooms, no boys in girls' showers or locker rooms."
Berkman's critics pounced on specific statements from the ad, paid for by the Campaign for Houston PAC, and made several valid points. But it's worth dissecting this ad in its entirety, as many of the most troubling and deceptive fallacies remained un-sussed-out over the weekend.
  • "Bathroom ordinance." Prop 1 isn't an ordinance governing who can go into which bathrooms. It's a broad anti-discrimination law, protecting people on the basis of sex, race, religion, and more—not just sexual orientation and gender identity. Furthermore, even as the law affects LGBT Houstonians, it doesn't just deal with bathrooms. It protects them against all forms of discrimination—by their employer, by their landlord, by business owners, at the polling place, at restaurants—and generally allows them to enjoy the equal protections that the United States supposedly affords all its citizens. Boiling Prop 1 down to just bathrooms is ignoring the massive other components of what the bill aims to do—and essentially states that an opponent's concerns over bathroom encounters override their desire to see every class of citizen protected under the law. Even social conservatives can agree that people whose lifestyles they find repugnant deserve the same constitutional rights—indeed, conservatives are often quite keen to see that the Constitution is followed and enforced. Prop 1 would allow the 14th Amendment—the one granting equal protection—to be explicitly enforced on the local level in Houston.
  • "Troubled men." Transgender women are not troubled men. A born male coming to identify as a woman is a natural condition; it's not a mental illness or a crime. Indeed, they're not even men; many have lived as women for years, are legally women, and have no worse a claim on the women's bathroom than biological women.
  • "Harm's way"; "potential danger"; "waiting for a crime to happen." These phrases strongly imply that transgender people are more likely to be criminals or, specifically, sex offenders. This is simply false. As explained above, being transgender is a natural condition, not some sickness or a symptom of depravity. There has never been a recorded incident of a transgender person attacking a straight person in a bathroom. There are, however, thousands of same-sex sexual predators—e.g., men born as men who are attracted to young boys—who use public bathrooms and could use those same opportunities to attack children. Statistically, non-transgender people should be a much greater concern to any person or group, like Berkman, that professes to be afraid of "creeps." Finally, if a sexual predator were as lecherous and inclined to commit a crime as Prop 1 opponents fear, do they really think that these criminals would be deterred by rules governing which bathroom they can enter? Prop 1 opponents view the ordinance as giving predators "legal cover" to be in the opposite bathroom, but, of course, they would have no legal cover if they commit a crime there—they'd be charged for that crime. If they do not commit a crime—like the thousands of transgender people who just want to feel comfortable when using the bathroom—there would be no need for charges.
  • "If restaurants, businesses, and sports facilities don't allow a man into a woman's restroom..." Berkman makes it sound like any man would be granted free access to women's bathrooms. This is incorrect; men entering the women's room would still be against the rules. But, again, transgender women (former men who have come to identify as women) are not men. They are women because that is how they feel in their bodies, regardless of their biology. People like Berkman fundamentally do not understand that gender is an identity and a social construct; it is not a simple matter of plumbing equipment.
  • "In reality, it discriminates against people who believe, like me, that members of the opposite sex should not be forced to share restrooms or locker rooms"; "discrimination against women." I don't need to re-address the point that transgender people are, in fact, not of the opposite sex. Instead, as Inigo Montoya would say, Berkman keeps using that word "discriminates"; I do not think it means what he thinks it means. Discrimination means "the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people or things." No one, Berkman included, would be prosecuted or denied legal protections based on their anti-LGBT beliefs. But when a person's beliefs include denying other people rights and legal protections—which, by definition, is true of people who oppose an anti-discrimination law—those beliefs must be overridden in a democratic, human-rights-based society like ours. They may continue to have those beliefs, and they can't be thrown into jail or denied service for them, but other people are allowed to find them repugnant—that's the flip side of allowing everyone their opinion—and yes, they'll have to live with a society that makes them uncomfortable. But just because Berkman doesn't like it, he's not being discriminated against. And women in the bathroom next to transgender people certainly aren't; they're using the bathroom freely and voluntarily.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Downballot 2015 Race Ratings for Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi

Democracy never sleeps—even when the voters do. This year may be an off year for elections, but the pundits are still tracking the three gubernatorial races that will take place in fall 2015: in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi. But those states are electing way more than just governors—that's where I come in.

As it was last year, this blog will be the only place on the internet to go for handicapping this cycle's constitutional-officer elections. Per Baseballot's handy quick-reference guide to downballot politics, the 2015 ballot will feature two (separately-elected-from-the-governor) lieutenant governors, three attorneys general, three secretaries of state, three treasurers, two auditors, three agriculture commissioners, and two insurance commissioners. A lot fewer of those will be actual competitive races, but to determine that we have to look at the ratings, now don't we?

Things don't look good for Democrats (though in fairness, these are three fairly conservative states). The party stands to lose the few seats it has, whereas Republicans' seats are relatively safe. There are no "solid Democratic" constitutional offices on the ballot this year, whereas I judge there are 11 that are safe for Republicans. It could be particularly bad for Democrats if things just go a little bit wrong in Kentucky. Here's the state-by-state breakdown:


All six races (counting the governor's race) in Kentucky are closely linked, and all six are closely contested. As we learned in 2014, the final result of the top-of-the-ticket race can carry all the downballot results along with it. As such, like KY-GOV, all Kentucky constitutional offices could go either way.
  • Attorney General: Polls agree that Democrats are in the best shape in the attorney general's race, thanks mostly to the B-word: Beshear. Relative to the other Democrats on the statewide ballot, the popular governor's son Andy consistently leads by the most over, or trails by the least to, GOP State Senator Whitney Westerfield. You can also count on him winning the money battle.
  • Secretary of State: What rhymes with Alison Lundergan Grimes? A rising star in her prime. Poll numbers on the climb. Republican opponent Steve Knipper can't raise a dime. But she may have high negatives from running for US Senate that one time.
  • Treasurer: This is the epitome of a race that will break with the top of the ticket. Polls have indicated lots of undecideds between Democrat Rick Nelson and Republican Allison Ball.
  • Auditor: Another fairly generic contest with high undecideds in polls—but, unlike treasurer, this race has an incumbent in Democrat Adam Edelen. The party has high hopes for Edelen, who looks poised to take on Rand Paul next year for Senate.
  • Commissioner of Agriculture: For whatever reason, Republicans have historically done well for this office in not only Kentucky (winning the last three elections) but also nationally (holding 11 of the 12 elected agriculture commissionerships). In keeping with the trend, polls suggest candidate State Rep. Ryan Quarles has the strongest advantage of any statewide Republican contender over the inexperienced Democrat, Jean-Marie Lawson Spann.


Louisiana's jungle primary means that nominees for each party haven't been chosen yet—and, in fact, will never be chosen, as the top two finishers in the October 24 preliminary election advance to the November 21 runoff regardless of party affiliation. You'd think that not knowing the candidates would make these contests harder to forecast, but actually, in terms of party control (read: the inevitability of Republican wins), they're unlikely to make a difference.
  • Lieutenant Governor: The African American, Democratic mayor of Baton Rouge, Kip Holden, starts with a strong base of support—but the three Republican candidates in the race combined are likely to pull a strong majority. Whether Republican Billy Nungesser or John Young makes the runoff with Holden, they'll probably be favored, but Holden is probably the strongest Democrat on the statewide ballot this year, and that ain't nothing.
  • Attorney General: Incumbent Buddy Caldwell has only been a Republican for four years, switching parties during his first term as AG, and many "real" Republicans complain that he never stopped being a Democrat. That's earned him a strong, state-GOP-supported challenge from faithful conservative Jeff Landry (you might remember him as the former congressman ousted in 2012 in a redistricting-inspired primary). With only two minor Democrats in the running, it would be a shocker if the runoff isn't between Landry and Caldwell, who would become the de facto Democrat in November.
  • Secretary of State: This one will be decided on October 24 one way or another. Democrat Chris Tyson is Republican incumbent Tom Schedler's only competition, and barring shockingly high Democratic turnout in the preliminary, Schedler will win his second full term.
  • Treasurer: Republican John Neely Kennedy is in his fourth term as state treasurer, which should be enough to wrap up the 2015 election—but he also drew only one stray opponent, a fellow Republican, so this seat is a guaranteed hold for the party (and virtually guaranteed for Kennedy, probably a future US Senate candidate).
  • Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry: Republican Commissioner Mike Strain is the only heavyweight in this four-person field, although one of the candidates is an arborist named Jamie LaBranche, so that's cool.
  • Commissioner of Insurance: Incumbent Republican James Donelon has already reached 50% in a pre-election poll against his main Democratic opponent, Charlotte McGehee, as well as a Republican auto-body businessman. He's safe.


  • Lieutenant Governor: For LG, Democrats have nominated an Elvis impersonator who was a Republican as recently as Martin Luther King Day. Somehow, though, incumbent Republican Tate Reeves is even more popular than that guy.
  • Attorney General: Incumbent AG Jim Hood is the last statewide Democrat standing in the Deep South—and he's not even that conservative, prosecuting KKK members and declining to join the suit against Obamacare. Can he hang on for a fourth term? Early indications are yes (a Mason-Dixon poll showed him leading Republican Mike Hurst 55% to 40%), but never underestimate the power of partisanship. With a conservative outside spender already airing ads in the race, it will at least be a competitive election.
  • Secretary of State: The phenomenally named Delbert Hosemann is up for his third term, and he has a phenomenal 1,899 times as much cash on hand ($1,139,390 to $600) as Democrat Charles Graham. Barring something even more phenomenal, this will be an easy hold for the Republican.
  • Treasurer: No Democrat filed to challenge first-term Republican Lynn Fitch.
  • Auditor: The Pickerings are a mini-dynasty in Mississippi, and Stacey is the state auditor. His campaign has been under investigation for financial violations, but if he was going to lose, it would have been in the nasty primary. The Mississippi electorate and his breezy fundraising will ensure Pickering defeats Democrat Jocelyn Pepper Pritchett in November.
  • Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce: Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith—the first woman elected to statewide office in state history—is facing only a token challenge from a local Democratic activist.
  • Commissioner of Insurance: Republican Mike Chaney will be elected to his third term without any opposition.