Thursday, October 20, 2011

Occupy George Clooney

George Clooney has a terrible sense of timing. The Ides of March is a cynical movie for what I'm sure Clooney regards as a cynical time. His stance is understandable. The movie's corrosive pessimism - is there one person in the movie who retains an ounce of idealism by the end of it? - and bleak view of the internal workings of a Presidential primary campaign, reinforces the commonly held view that no one can be trusted, all politicians are corrupt and that the "mainstream media" is merely the opposite side of the same tarnished coin. It's a movie that the Tea Party should love.

The movie appears - here is the bad timing part - at the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Occupy Wall Street is a romantic, inchoate and multi-faceted but spirited attempt to focus our attention on the deep problems of what political liberals used to write and talk about with frequency - the dirty little secret of economic class in America.

For a good discussion on the "essence" of Occupy Wall Street go to the Symposium in The New Republic at:

While tens of thousands of people are actively trying to sort their way towards an alternative economic program - hopefully one that is eventually coherently articulated and implemented - Clooney has thrown a dark, wet, suffocating blanket over any idea of creative political aspirations.

One of the central problems is that the movie is not really about politics at all. The Ides of March is really about the media. Or more precisely, about what an intelligent Hollywood liberal who comes from a media family (his father was a journalist) thinks his audience would embrace with respect to what politics and the media are "really about."

The film is bookended by the preparation for media events - a televised debate at the beginning of the film and a one-on-one interview at its end. Most of the internal machinations of the campaign directors are determined by what the evening news will say about their respective campaigns. You might be saying to yourself that "This sounds about right to me." If you are saying this, I suggest you volunteer for a political campaign. The candidates you meet will not be saints and they will tend to to bend towards the demands of the media juggernaut. But my sense is that their motivations are not far from those of non-candidates but with slightly and often more than slightly exaggerated egos.

You will also find people who actually believe in things - who fight to implement policy - who devote tremendous amounts of time and energy to getting things done - and who generally are subject to mostly unflattering portraits in the press - which is part of the job of the press in any democratic society I have to add. We all hope for a little "balance," but nobody makes anyone run for office. You basically put up your hand and say, "Ill give it a try."

The candidate that George Clooney plays in the Ides of March has few redemptive characteristics. He offers a good speech - if you think that giving platitudes a bad name is fine rhetoric. I found the character mostly smug and self-satisfied.

This raises the interesting sociological question of whether our society can actually "produce" candidates who go beyond the limits imposed by the structure (communications, financing, ideological constraints, class transformation and psychological conditioning) of society itself.

Why, for instance, can there never be another Eugene Debs that captures the genuine insurgent spirit of a particular kind of American radicalism? Debs only received six percent of the vote for his best Presidential campaign - the vast majority of Americans preferring to give their votes to candidates like William McKinley, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson - but his influence went far beyond his vote totals. (For a sympathetic portrait of Debs and overall balanced view of the history of the American Left see Michael Kazin's new book, American Dreamers)

As Kazin points out - as does the book The Liberal Hour (about politics and legislative change in the 1960s), you need both dedicated political leaders and movements from below to generate significant political and economic progress.

Clooney doesn't examine these questions and it is perhaps unfair to expect him to. While apparently the play that the movie was based upon was written by a political operative of some kind, the Ides of March strikes me as an "inside look" at a high level campaign produced by someone who has never really been "inside." Imagine being used and trotted around by political campaigns, given "access" to candidates and asked to raise money but never being allowed into the meetings where the crucial decisions are being made. I'm not asking you to shed any tears for George, but this movie might be his poisoned love letter in return for all the favors.

Clooney has done a disservice to the idea that politics can make a difference for anyone other than the political candidates and consultants who make their careers and living through politics. His last "political" movie The American (see my blog below), was also without context - violence without purpose, love without connection. I hope his next movie is not an apocalyptic end-of-the-world drama.

Further Reading:

Michael Kazin - American Dreamers - How the Left Changed a Nation

G. Calvin MacKenzie & Robert Weisbrot - The Liberal Hour - Washington and the Politics of Change in the 1960s

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Casey Candaele talks about Moneyball, Naked Batting Practice and the Spirit of Baseball

My brother Casey played in the major leagues for 9 years - a strong career by any standard. One of my favorite journalism assignments was for the New York Times when they asked me to travel with my brother's team, the Houston Astros, on one of the longest road trips in the history of professional baseball. Available here:

The Republican Party had taken over the Astrodome - the teams home field - for their national convention that year so the team was kicked out. The trip allowed me to view the game from behind the scenes so to speak, with access to the locker room, the opposing teams, the umpires and the coaching staff. I also experienced the tedium of down-time between games with some of baseball's great players; Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell and the late Ken Caminiti.

Casey is now a roving coach in the minor leagues with the Texas Rangers. I had a chance to interview Casey just after he had taken some of his young players from the instructional league in Arizona to see the movie Moneyball, staring Brad Pitt as the General Manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team.

Question: Let's get right to the crucial issues that my readers are most interested in Casey. Did you really take batting practice naked when you were with the Astros?

CC: Well, let me explain. We had a very late night game on a Saturday that went 15 innings followed by an early game Sunday the next day. I was sitting at my locker naked before the game on Sunday - kind of tired. The hitting coach came by and asked if anyone wanted to take batting practice in the batting cage in the clubhouse. I was struggling at the plate at the time and I was just sitting at my locker with nothing to do, so I put on my socks and cleats and got my bat, walked to the batting cage and stood in the batters box. The pitcher who was throwing at the time at first refused to pitch to me. He said "I'm not doing this." So I explained to him that I would have better concentration in this state and everything would be fine. While I was hitting, one of the umpires for that day's game came by and he almost fell on the ground. During the game he asked me how batting practice was. I told him it was a freeing experience - very liberating. At any rate, I got a couple of hits that day so I started taking batting practice naked every Sunday. You know how superstitious ballplayers are. One of my teammates Pete Incaviglia filmed it once but I don't know where the tape is, thank goodness. A couple of other guys did it a few times because they saw I was getting some hits, but they didn't believe like I did, so it didn't work for them.

Question: You just went to see Moneyball with some young minor league ballplayer where you are coaching. What was their overall response to the movie?

CC: I think it was good for them because they got to see the inner workings of baseball operations and to see what goes into it. Young players don't usually see that. Some of the players wondered why Billy Beane turned down the $12 million from the Boston Red Sox. But most of their questions were about how involved the team's General Managers get with the process on the field - are they that hands on like Beane was portrayed.

Question: Billy Beane and the people who agreed with his philosophy operated under the assumption that the old way of analyzing ball-players was mostly about a lot of talking and guessing and that they had a more scientific way of going about this. What was your sense of this?

CC: I retired in 2000 so the Moneyball approach started a bit later. The thing that struck me about the movie is that the As were actually pretty good. They had Eric Chavez, a young third baseman who had been playing for a number of years. Miguel Tejada had over 30 home runs and over 100 RBIs that year I think. Jermaine Dye was on that team and had a great year. They also had Terrance Long who was in the running for Rookie of the Year the year before. But most importantly, and this is the film's major problem I think - the A's had a great pitching staff. They had Tim Hudson who led the league in ERA and wins a number of years in a row. They had Mark Mulder who won 19 games and Barry Zito who won 23 and was on top of his game. The pitching was outstanding but the movie doesn't even mention those guys. So this team was not like the Bad News Bears. In terms of the Moneyball philosophy, I guess it makes sense to combine people on the team who can get on base consistently with guys who can drive them in. And as it said at the end of the movie, the Red Sox used this philosophy and went on to win the World Series. The Sox had many great players at the time and they are not a small market team so they spend money. So, I don't think it is a matter of assembling a team of all players that have a high On Base Percentage, which is what the movie portrayed. You have to have some people who can drive those guys in quickly.

Question: There was a scene where the Billy Beane character played by Brad Pitt comes into the locker room where the players are dancing and listening to loud music after losing a game. Pitt swings a bat at the stereo in anger and suggests that the appropriate sound after losing is the sound of silence. It struck me that this scene is one that audiences might embrace because it appeals to a certain misconception about professional athletes that they don't care about wining and losing but only about their own personal situation or about money and so on. What was your experience?

CC: I would certainly never have thought of dancing around the clubhouse after losing 16 games in a row. So I wouldn't be all that surprised if a General Manager or coach would come in and smash something if guys were doing that kind of thing after losing. But in my experience, there was not a party atmosphere after losing games. If the guys on the A's actually did that it's hard to believe. I've never been on a team where if you lose and continue to lose it's accepted by the players. I would not have been happy myself and most of the guys I played with over the years would not have been happy either.

Question: What was realistic about the film?

CC: What was realistic was that Beane made a decision about how to re-create the process of how to win in a small baseball market. In that respect it was unique as they were trying to find a way to compete, and they had a great year. But as I said, they had a really good team those years. They did find three guys that could get on base and they were cheap. The other thing that was realistic was how players got released or cut from a team. It's just straightforward. They call you in and say "We're going to let you go and good luck." That's what happened to me. So I loved that line in the movie where Beane says, "What would you prefer, one bullet to the head or five to the chest and you bleed to death?" That was great.

Question: What makes a good General Manager?

CC: The good ones have no fear. They do what they have to do and what they feel is going to be best for the team regardless of who you are giving up. However, they are also good at keeping the young players that can become major league contributors and they don't give away the future for the present. It's a fine line you have to navigate.

Question: What do you look for in a young player?

CC: Well, I want them to keep their clothes on at practice. Really I just try to develop them into professional players - to enhance their skills and abilities and prepare them for the unique pressures of major league baseball. They have to have the ability to adapt so that is key. And one of the most important things is attitude and make-up, their character and determination. The thing that I look for the most is their passion and desire to play the game. That is a major factor when I work with young players.

Question: What do you miss most about your life as a player?

CC: The friendships and comradery both on and off the field that are created when you are part of a team striving for the same goal.

Question: Who do you pick to win the World Series?

CC: Are you crazy? I'm picking the Rangers.